The question’s been raised, publicly and privately: Should Bernie Sanders quit the presidential race or keep going? It will almost certainly be asked again now that the Wisconsin primary—like so many others—has been postponed.
It’s the wrong question. Bernie should do something else altogether, something never before seen in American politics: he should continue his campaign in a non-traditional form. He should campaign on ideas, not on defeating Joe Biden. The movement he represents has a voice that must be heard—now, more than ever.
In a moment of crisis, Bernie—and Biden—can model a new approach to politics: the campaign as conversation, as collaboration, and as organizing tool. That will benefit his movement, the nation, and the Democrats’ chances in November.
The presidency wasn’t supposed to be the point
In a sense, Bernie should return to his roots, to his thinking in late 2014 and early 2015. That’s when told me he was considering a presidential run and asked if I would join him if he did. Shortly thereafter I found myself on a plane from Los Angeles to New York on a seemingly quixotic mission: to help a democratic socialist senator with virtually no national profile run a long shot race against the best-known, most powerful, and reportedly most inevitable primary candidate in recent history.
“Let’s be honest,” Bernie said on my first day. “It is highly unlikely that this campaign will end in the Oval Office. That isn’t the point.”
The point, he said, was to build support for new ideas, and to build the movement that could turn those ideas into reality. Some of my friends thought I was making a reckless move, but I’d read the polls and seen the economic figures. There was a hunger in the country, and a need.
Something else happened on that first day. As Bernie and I walked into a little Italian restaurant (he could do that back then), I told him I had documented some of the Clintons’ financial relationships with powerful interests, individually and through their foundation. There’s no other way to describe his reaction: I got scolded. “I’m not running that kind of campaign,” he said. “We will talk about ideas. And your job will be to make sure people who are interested in our campaign learn about the issues.”
Early on, he spoke at a rally in a Washington DC park—more of a gathering, really, of one hundred protestors or so. Someone shouted, “We love you!” He paused. “I love you, too,” he said, “but it’s really not about me. It’s about us, and what we can do together.”
A campaign of ideas, centered on collaboration and not on a candidate’s personality: that was the vision then. It still is.
Paradoxically, the most selfless thing Bernie can do now is not to leave the race, but stay in it.
A competition of ideas, not personalities
To what end? He’s achieved his original goals to an extraordinary extent. But he’s not done yet.
Barring the unexpected, Joe Biden will be the nominee. Democrats seem to have settled on Biden as electable, a good guy, trustworthy. Joe feels safe.
But it’s important to note that Bernie’s losses are not a repudiation of his ideas. Polls show that Democrats across the country strongly support a “single government plan for all,” for example—in Mississippi, in Washington, in Michigan, in Missouri, in ... nearly every primary that has taken place. If Dems had voted on that idea, rather than on a candidate, single-payer would have had an uninterrupted string of primary victories. There is also strong support for other ideas that Sanders and his movement have introduced into the debate, including the Green New Deal.
As for the general election, surveys from Working America suggested that a significant chuck of Trump-to-Obama voters are moved by big ideas like Medicare For All, Green New Deal, and massive infrastructure spending. Two-thirds of Americans now support a $15 minimum wage.
Democratic insiders will continue to debate the relative importance of swing voters versus base turnout. But, as it turns out, the same policies are likely to attract them both. Working America’s pollsters found that swing voters in battleground states are “as receptive to a wide range of progressive policies as the progressive Democratic base. Voters in an Obama-to-Trump district told Democracy Corps in 2019 that they felt “scared,” “nervous,” and “hopeless” about the fate of the country.
And that was before the pandemic. Now, we will need to rebuild from a level of economic devastation not seen in many generations. That makes Bernie’s ideas more important than ever, whether you’re targeting swing voters or greater turnout from the Democratic base.
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Many of the Democratic advisors I know seem convinced that Donald Trump’s mismanagement of the crisis will be self-evident to voters in November. I’m not so sure. And that mismanagement could cut against the Democrats in unexpected ways, as election chaos leads to an inability to vote in Democratic strongholds. Voter registration, always critical for Democrats, is already being impeded by the pandemic. That could affect millions of voters—including millions in Generation Z (born after 1997) who turn eighteen this year. That seems likely to sharply skew the electorate by eliminating large chunks of a highly progressive voting bloc from the most diverse generation in US history.
The Democratic base includes millions of people who struggle against structural bigotry every day. Working, and surviving, was already a full-time job, and COVID-19 is hitting them harder than wealthier voters. To make matters worse, Republicans are also doubling down on voter suppression.
That means turnout could become an even bigger problem for the Dems this year. They’ll need ideas that spark enthusiasm, and they will need organizing power to get voters to the polls. Bernie’s campaign is building strength in both areas as it goes.
What about the left? Democratic insiders have spent years blaming them, unfairly, for Trump’s victory. But every vote will count in November. If Bernie drops out now, they’ll be prevented from showing their support for his ideas. Many will be convinced that the primary was rigged against Bernie—and against them.
If Bernie stays in, however, millions of his supporters will participate in the primary process. He and his team can keep using the campaign as an organizing tool. And Bernie can go into the convention—assuming there is a convention—with the leverage to push for progressive ideas and meaningful party reforms.
In the end, that helps everyone.
A Conversation, Not a Campaign
Establishment insiders are already calling Bernie a “spoiler” for staying in. While there’s undoubtedly an element of sour grapes in that, a continued fight for the nomination raises legitimate concerns. It means Biden can’t speak as the party’s nominee, select a vice president, or stand with other Democrats (metaphorically, during the lockdown) as the party’s de facto leader.
Why not do something different? Bernie can tell the world that, as of now, he will stay in the race—but he will run on the assumption that, barring unforeseen circumstances, Joe Biden will be the nominee. Bernie can reiterate what he has already said: that he will support, and campaign for, the party’s nominee. The agreement should be structured so that Biden can assume the role of nominee. But Bernie will continue to run in future primaries so that people can vote for his ideas and his movement.
"The Biden camp should be careful what they wish for. If Bernie drops out now, they are potentially losing voters that will be critical in both the presidential and down-ballot races."
For the next debate, Bernie can propose that he and Biden have a televised, one-on-one conversation about policy—not at podiums, not with pointless 75-second fire drills, but in a sit-down, face to face discussion between two leaders. On the campaign trail, Bernie and his team can return to the style he laid out for me on the way to that Italian restaurant in April 2015: we will campaign for our ideas, but we will refrain from personal attacks.
Bernie can encourage his supporters to share their ideas with other voters in the same collaborative way. He and they can say that goal, at this point, is not to defeat Biden. It is to move the Democratic Party further to the left—and therefore closer to victory.
To be sure, many people in the Bernie nor Biden camps would probably be unhappy with this approach. Many supporters still believe Bernie has a path to victory, but that seems increasingly unlikely. And the Biden camp should be careful what they wish for. If Bernie drops out now, they are potentially losing voters that will be critical in both the presidential and down-ballot races.
This approach would model a new kind of politics. Bernie has always seemed to hate the “horse race” nature of campaigns, which speaks well of him. Instead of a horse race, then, why not create a more collaborative politics—one where ideas, not personalities, are the focus?
It won’t happen magically. A new approach would take serious negotiations between the Biden and Sanders teams, and between Joe and Bernie directly. Those negotiations would be difficult. They could fail, despite the two senators’ apparent liking for one another. And, while Biden has already made overtures to the left, any such agreement would undoubtedly face institutional resistance from the party’s infrastructure. But it’s worth a try.
You say you want a revolution? Me, too. But good revolutionaries are realists. For those of us on the left, this approach would keep our ideas in the public eye without creating further resentment and division. The battle before us now is to defeat Trump and his party, to move US politics to the left, and to reshape the political process in a wiser and more humane image. That’s how our movement grows. That’s how we adapt. That’s how we win.
That’s how everybody wins.